Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist: 2012--Etgar Keret's Suddenly a Knock on the Door

Etgar Keret, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

An irksome impediment to the short-story reader’s pleasure and the short-story writer’s profit is that reading a single good short story is a huge draft on the reader’s intellectual and emotional energy; reading several short stories, one after another, in a single volume, is daunting and exhausting.  The American writer and editor, William Dean Howells, in a piece entitled “Anomalies of the Short Story,” published in 1897 (available as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg) expressed this problem rather well:

“One of the most amusing questions concerning the short story is why a form which is singly so attractive that every one likes to read a short story when he finds it alone is collectively so repellent as it is said to be….
“I believe that [reader] indolence or intellectual reluctance is largely to blame for the failure of good books of short stories. [The reader] is commonly so averse to any imaginative exertion that he finds it a hardship to respond to that peculiar demand which a book of good short stories makes upon him. He can read one good short story in a magazine with refreshment, and a pleasant sense of excitement, in the sort of spur it gives to his own constructive faculty. But, if this is repeated in ten or twenty stories, he becomes fluttered and exhausted by the draft upon his energies; whereas a continuous fiction of the same quantity acts as an agreeable sedative.”

If, as in Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock on the Door, the number of stories is cranked up to thirty-five in a small collection of 188 pages, you know you have your work cut out for you.  The reader may experience so much imaginative exertion here that the danger of becoming fluttered and exhausted about half way through is a real possibility.  As Howells says, a continuous fiction (i.e., a novel) acts as an agreeable sedative, but Keret’s book disturbs the reader with thirty-five wakeup calls

I had only read a few Keret stories--those that have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s, magazines to which I subscribe--before reading Suddenly a Knock on the Door.  However, a Google and Lexis Nexis search of reviews indicates that he has a big name for these little stories in Israel, and, if you believe back jacket blurbs, has been given high praise by the likes of Amos Oz and Salman Rushdie. 

Although not as widely reviewed in other English-speaking newspapers as Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (more about that next week), Steven Almond raved about Suddenly a Knock on the Door in The New York Times, and Carolyn Kellogg said in The Los Angeles Times, “If you have room in your heart, wallet, or reading list for just one book of short stories this year, make it Etgar Keret’s Suddenly a Knock on the Door.” (Sad to say, most folks seldom have room in their heart for more than one book of short stories.)

Although I must admit I bogged down about half way through the book, I was having a heck of a good time for the first hundred pages or so.  And most reviewers obviously had a good time with the book also.  However, the usual way they talk about the stories is to compare Keret to other writers who write “this kind of story”—Franz Kafka, Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Lydia Davis, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.—and to summarize, usually in a sentence or two, the plots of some of the stories.  

And, indeed, these are concept stories, idea stories, what-if stories, think-about-this stories, e.g. a woman discovers a zipper under her lover’s tongue, a man is made to face his lies, God is seen as a cripple in a wheelchair, a hemorrhoid develops to such an extent that it suffers from a man, and so on and so on. Some stories work better than others; some just fall flat; some seem more ordinary than magical, some are just cute and clever rather than revelatory and brilliant.  However, as uneven as the book may be, it only takes a few really fine stories to make the reading worthwhile.

Keret has said that what he wants to hold on to in his fiction is “some kind of complexity and ambiguity.”  And he seems convinced that the short story is the best form with which to explore complexity and ambiguity.  Although he says that everyone—his agent, his publisher, and his bank manager—want him to write a novel, he feels he would not be able to write it from the “same place” he writes his stories:

“There’s something about fiction that has a function in my life and which dictates the type of stuff I write, and if I wrote a novel, I wouldn’t be able to commit to the kinds of things that exist in my stories.  My novel wouldn’t represent me the way the stories do.  The place they represent is a place of honesty. … The bottom line is I love this experience of just being within the realm of short-story fiction, and it’s difficult to give up.  Whatever else is going to happen, this is something I’ll keep.”

With all the pressure on writers to write novels, this is admirable dedication to the often-ignored form. I do not see how any one of the stories could be a continuous fiction; they are conceived and made to be short—short like a joke, ala Woody Allen; short like a parable, ala Franz Kafka; short like a koan, ala Lydia Davis; short like a fable, ala Donald Barthelme.

In his little pamphlet of a book, O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story, Russian formalist B. M. Ejxenbaum insisted that the novel and short story are forms “not only different in kind but also inherently at odds…. The novel is a syncretic form…the short story is a fundamental, elementary (which is not to say primitive) form.”  Ejxenbaum recognized the importance of the ending of a short story, noting that, “by its very essence, the story, just as the anecdote, amasses its whole weight toward the ending…. Short story is a term referring exclusively to plot, one assuming a combination of two conditions:  small size and plot impact on the ending.”  If we accept Ejxenbaum’s characterization of the short story as a genre, then we might accept Keret’s stories—at least the best ones-- as quintessential short stories.

Here are two of my favorite stories in the collection, which, just coincidentally, happen to be the first two stories in the book:

“Suddenly a Knock on the Door”:

I like it that the first story in this collection begins with the universal request: “Tell me a story.”  Since the bearded man making this request is holding a gun in his hand, the demand on the writer is as old as that made on Scherazade in Thousand and One Nights.  In short, telling a story is a matter of life and death.  Keret includes a little bit of politics here when the writer recognizes that in the Middle East brute force is the only language understood, but politics is not the focus of the story. The writer begins making a story out of the present situation, introducing the necessary plot complication: “Two people are sitting in a room.  Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door.”  And sure enough at that moment there is a knock on the door; it is a young man doing a survey, and the writer tries to send him away. Accusing the writer of race prejudice for accepting a Swede and sending away a Moroccan, the pollster pulls out his own pistol and also demands a story.

 Continuing with the storyteller’s compulsion to transform the present situation into a story, he begins again: “Three people are sitting in a room,” but the Swede interrupts that he wants no “Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door.”  Then, of course, there is a knock on the door, and it’s a pizza delivery guy; the pollster and the Swede know he wants a story also, and when they tell him to go ahead and pull out his pistol, he pulls out a meat cleaver instead, and all three insist on hearing a story.

When for the third time the writer begins to transform the situation into fiction, beginning “Four people are sitting in a room,” the pollster protests, “That’s not a story.  That’s an eyewitness report.  It’s exactly what’s happening here right now.” He tells the writer that that is exactly what they are trying to run away from: “Don’t you go and dump reality on us, like a garbage truck.  Use your imagination, man, create, invent, take it all the way.”  The writer begins again, this time describing a man sitting in a room who wants to write a story, for he misses the feeling of creating something out of something. Something out of something, he says, “means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover a part of something new that’s never happened before.  The writer wants to write a story about the human situation, the human condition, but cannot because the human condition he is experiencing right now does not seem to be wroth a story, and he is just about to give up….when the Swede interrupts him with “No knock on the door.” The write says he must, for without a knock on the door there is no story. The pizza guy says o.k. as long as the knock on the door brings them a story.


Robbie tells his first at age seven when his mother sends him to the store to get a pack of cigs, but he gets an ice cream instead, hiding the change under a big white stone in the yard.  Robbie tells her a giant redheaded kid with a missing tooth took the money; it is the specificity of the description that makes her believe him. What makes a good liar is what makes a good storyteller—concrete detail. Once when late for work he says that he found a German shepherd beside the road paralyzed in two legs and he had to take it to the vet.

As a grown man, he has a dream in which his dead mother asks him to get her a gumball, but he has no change until he remembers the change he hid under the rock.  When he wakes up and goes to the stone, under it he finds a hole the size of a grapefruit with a light shining out of it.  He reaches in and finds the handle of a gumball machine, but when he turns it nothing comes out.  Instead, he is transported to the place of his mother’s dreams, made up of white walls and a giant gumball machine where he sees a redheaded boy with a missing tooth who kicks him in the shins. As he limps away, he sees a German shepherd paralyzed in two legs and a skinny old man with a glass eye and no arms, who is, it turns out, someone else’s lie.

The old man tells him the gumball machine only takes liras, and he gives some to Robbie, saying if Robbie had not made up the lie about the dog, he would be alone.  Robbie goes to the gumball machine, drops in a lira, and finds himself stretched out on the ground by the hole; when he pulls his hand out, it has a red gumball in it, but h is mother does not return to claim it.

He starts telling positive lies, but few believe him, for, as he says, when you tell people something bad they think it is normal, but if you tell them something good, they get suspicious.  So he stops lying altogether.  He finds the girl who told a lie about the old man with one eye and no arms, and takes her down the rabbit hole, as it were, to meet him. She is remorseful for her lie, but the old man reassures her that he has enjoyed every minute of the life she invented for him. She decides to take care of him and asks Robbie to help her.  He knows he will have to tell a lie at work to go with her, but he knows it will be a “happy lie, full of light, flowers, and sunshine.  And who knows—maybe even a baby or two, and they’d be smiling.”  This is, of course, a “they lived happily ever after” story, which explores the paradox that lies can become more real than truth.

What makes Keret the quintessential storyteller is his obsessive theme of the superiority of story to so-called reality.  I am currently reading several books on the nature of story that explore story’s primal importance to human experience.  As soon as I complete these comments on the six shortlisted Frank O’Connor Award collections, I will spend some time sharing with you what I have learned.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist: 2012--Sarah Hall's The Beautiful Indifference

Sarah Hall, The Beautiful Indifference, Faber and Faber

In an interview article (Metro.co.uk) last November, Sarah Hall, author of four well-received novels, talked about her first collection of short stories, Beautiful Indifference, the short story in general, and the debate that year in England over the Booker Prize emphasizing “readable” fiction:  “When did this country become afraid of excellence and of the avant-garde?” Hall asked.  “There’s this anxiety about not wanting to be too good, a worry about appearing classist.  There’s this assumption that people want a diet of hamburger literature.  But I think they want brilliant literature.”

The short story genre is often at the center of this argument over whether prize-worthy fiction should be accessible to a wide range of readers or whether it should be stylistically and thematically demanding and complex.  In my last post on Fiona Kidman’s shortlisted collection The Trouble with Fire, I tried to show that her stories were indeed “readable”--examples of what O’Connor would have called “novelistic” or “applied storytelling,” just not “artistic,” i.e. emphasizing style, tone, and compact complexity, as O’Connor claimed the short story should be.  I heard an echo of this emphasis on form over content today when, by sad serendipity, I was reading the obituary of famed film critic Andrew Sarris, who introduced the auteur theory to American film criticism.  Sarris said:  “The art of the cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture.  It is not so much what as how.”

In her first collection of short stories—and she promises not her last—Hall has compared working on these stories to working on poetry: “There’s a formalism to it that’s quite similar, and a discipline to it, and I’ve really enjoyed going back to that—so I can see myself not leaving it too long before working on a another collection.”  When asked if she felt the novel was the form in which she was most comfortable, she replied: “I would have said that until a year ago, but I’ve been feeling that the quality of the stories has been really improving.  Once you figure out what you’re doing with the form, that’s really satisfying. Obviously, I’ve written four novels…so if you look at it objectively from the outside, probably yes, I’m a novelist.  But it’s not a flirtation with short stories, that’s for sure.” 

The British reviewers reacted very positively when Beautiful Indifference came out last fall.  Here are some typical suggestive sound bites:  dazzling sensuality,” “bewitching delicacy and skill,” “dark atmospheric and moving tales,” “mesmeric and stimulating,” “full of sensuous power,” “luscious short stories,” “beautifully poetic,” “erotic charge,” “perceptive observations strike like slaps,” “raw,” “guttural and visceral,” “bewitchingly vivid prose,” “heartbreaking,”  “disturbing, exquisitely crafted collection,” “reaches a standard that makes award juries sit up and take notice.”

Well, obviously the jury of the Frank O’Connor Award this year has sat up and taken notice.  But does this small book of seven poetic stories have the heft to dislodge the other heavy weights on this list?  Fiona Kidman’s 370-page doorstop of a book could swallow this delicate little morsel in one gulp, although Dame Kidman might find the dish a bit too spicy.

The real question about Sarah Hall’s Beautiful Indifference is whether the readers and judges can transcend the sexual subject matter of many of these stories and the glamorous promotional photo inside the back cover and pay attention to the carefully wrought style of the stories. The real focus of these stories is not sex, but sentences.

Hall has said in an interview that lots of people claim that she does not write like a woman, but like a man because, as Hall opines, there is a visceral quality to her work, as if women are not supposed to write about blood and guts. And indeed, there is much blood and not a little guts in these stories, beginning with the aptly titled,  “Butcher’s Perfume,” about a gypsy family of dog and horse breeders, described by a young woman who has become friends with the tough talking and tough brawling daughter, Manda Slessor, who, like her parents and her three brothers, is “all gristle to the bone.” Butcher’s perfume” is the sickly sweet smell of blood and raw flesh; I smelled it when my grandfather butchered a hog every autumn. After a sharp blow to the forehead with a short handled sledge, he quickly, with one clean movement, slashed the throat so the blood could be caught in buckets held close by. 

The story takes place in Cumbria where the young narrator senses a brutal past--the primitive world of Heathcliff after the death of Cathy: “This was where the raiders met, coming south or north. This was burnt-farm and hacked throats, where roofs were oiled and fired and haylofts were used to kipper children.  And if you rolled down the window you could just about hear it—the alarms and crackling flames, women split open and screaming as their men folk choked on sinew pushed down their gullets.” 

Also adding to the story’s sense of the primitive is Hall’s use of Cumbrian phrases and street slang, e.g. “The lad would chunter on about watching the footie.”  (Low inarticulate talk about football).  The father calls his son a ”gudfernobbut twat.” In its combination of brutality and slang language, the story echoes A Clockwork Orange.

The Slessors are even-weighted and indestructible, says the narrator--paired by “feral instinct, like wolves among us.” The wife Vivian, a tough superstitious woman, rules over “a household of managed tension.”  Although the husband Geordie is coarse and brutal, if he had hit his wife, “She would have taken those fists into her soft flesh, and even worn his black temper on her face in public for a while.  Then in the night she would slit him wide open, balls to bellybutton.”

The story comes to a climax when the narrator, passes the barn of a “rare bastard” and sees a horse in terrible shape: “Its ribcage angled up through its flesh like the frame of a boat being dismantled…its hooves had twisted into thick discoloured spirals, like the nails of a Chinese emperor…. It was something from a middle-forest fairytale, where the dark branches lift and in a clearing is Knife-Hand Nick, his children’s heads bubbling in a pot above the fire.” If this is the world of gruesome fairy tale, it is also the grotesque world of Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came:”

As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair

  In leprosy; thin dry blades prick’d the mud

  Which underneath look’d kneaded up with blood.
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,

Stood stupefied, however he came there:

  Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,

  With that red, gaunt and collop’d neck a-strain,
  And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;

Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;

I never saw a brute I hated so;

  He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

When the narrator shows the brutalized horse to one of the Slessor brothers, he tells her to mind her own business, but she later finds out from Manda that the brothers strung up the owner by his feet and “cut the bastard with a riding crop right through to the putty in his spine.”  He was not expected to walk again. 

Although the story is told in graphic brutal detail by an innocent young woman, about a vicious fairytale family, the language transcends the beastly and becomes fabulistic e and legendary, creating a world where there is justice, even if there is no civilized society.  If you think this is all just brutal behavior, then you are not listening to the rhythm of Hall’s prose.

The title story, “Beautiful Indifference” introduces a typical Hall female character, an entrapped woman--in this case, a writer waiting for her lover in a hotel room. However, she insists she dislikes books. “Something in the act itself, the immersion, the seclusion, was disturbing.  Reading was an affirmation of being alone, of been separate, trapped.  Books were like oubliettes.”

When her lover arrives, he tells her he wants her all the time. “I want to break you.  It’s a sickness.”  She laughs and calls him a sadist.  In this and other stories, Hall suggests that the basic nature of sexuality is sado/masochistic, motivated by the twin desires to destroy the other or be destroyed: ”Whenever he came inside it her it stung.  Towards the end of their time together he would gauge how sore she was.  He knew the difference between pleasure and discomfort, though the two were so closely aligned.” 

We get clues that the woman is ill, perhaps dying; she takes pills and begins to bleed. When she buys three packets of painkillers from three different pharmacies and drives out into the bracken, we suspect she has decided on a way to escape her sense of hopeless entrapment.  The story ends with a reference back to her dislike of the entrapment of books: “The hills were around her.  She took up her purse, opened the car door, and stepped into them.  It was like opening a book.”

In “Bees,” another trapped woman has left the country and moved to London, only to find dead bees littering her small garden:  “Black-capped, like aristocrats at a funeral, their antennae folded, with mortuary formality, across their eyes.”  She is not yet free from a relationship with a man she has left for his infidelity and harshness:  “The tenderness at the back of your throat from choking on him, being forced to.  You bore it, until you couldn’t bear it any more.”  At the end of the story, she sees “a rust-red, blaze-red fox” in her garden.   “It’s as if the creature has been stoked up from the surroundings, its fur like a furnace, eyes sparkling.”  After crouching for a moment, it springs on its back legs.  The jaws open and snap shut, and as it lands it shakes its red head furiously.”  The fox is not the cause of the dead bees, but is rather a Lawrentian emblem of dangerous, predatory sexuality.  

“The Agency” is about a woman who feels “as if love had become scentless, bloodless, it had somehow lost its vitality.” A friend recommends she make an appointment with a group referred to only as “the agency.”  On the drive her appointment, she pictures herself caught by a strong gust and losing control of the car:  “I imagined them finding me, hanging inside a cage of crumpled metal, slacknecked and bleeding over the dark red suit.”  This is a typical image in Hall’s stories.  In “The Beautiful Indifference,” as the woman drives to the heath to take an overdose of pills, she imagines people finding her body in the lowlands.

Hall refuses to tell us anything about what kind of service the agency performs for the woman, but we do get a few flirtatious clues.  For example, among the terms she is asked to choose on a questionnaire are: “film, restraints, doll, defecation.” When she gets home and takes off her clothes, there is a run or ladder in one of her stockings and a bruise spreading under her hipbone.  She recalls:  “He had asked for a phrase, to stop everything, and I had given John’s mother’s name, Alexandra, but it had not been used.”  These are all conventions of s/m.  And s/m, as all sex experts know, is a dramatic performance in which the so-called sadist must follow the script of the so-called masochist. The woman knows that the Agency had been conceived by a woman.  The rooms, the tidy gatekeeper, the subtle game; it all belonged to a woman.” 

In “She Murdered Mortal He, a woman has a spate with her lover and goes alone for a walk through the African jungle to get her bearings.  The story is an experiment in narrative suspense, as she becomes prey to the primitive forces outside her: “Her flesh felt exposed.  She was all meat, all scent.”
“The Nightlong River,” which focuses on a mink hunt, opens with description of November berries that “hung and clotted in the bushes, ripe and red, like blisters of blood.”  The ground that won’t halfway thaw until spring, is “like a clod of beef brought from the pantry and moved from cold room to cold room.”

To keep these shortlisted stories in perspective with the writer who gives his name to the Award, Frank O’Connor reminds us that the pure storytelling of the short story is more artistic than the applied storytelling of the novel, adding, “in storytelling I am not sure how much art is preferable to nature.” In spite of all the blood and guts and sex and sensuality in the stories of Sarah Hall, there is much more art than nature.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist: 2012--Fiona Kidman's The Trouble With Fire

Fiona Kidman, The Trouble with Fire, Vintage.

With all due respect to Dame Kidman, the honorable judges of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, and the book reviewers of New Zealand, I must confess that I simply do not understand how The Trouble with Fire was chosen for the shortlist of a prestigious award for excellence in the short story.

The Frank O’Connor Short Story website states that the aim of the yearly prize is to “reward an individual author’s commitment to this most exacting of forms and encourage the publication of collections of stories in book form as distinct from single stories in periodicals.” The winner receives 25,000 Euros, which is roughly equivalent to $31, 570 American dollars--“the single biggest prize for a short story collection in the world,” besting the US Story Prize, which awards $20,000 to a short story collection each ear. 
The award is given by the Munster Literature Centre at a yearly celebration in Cork honoring one of Ireland’s greatest short story writers and the author of one of the best-known books celebrating that form, The Lonely Voice.

To put The Trouble with Fire in short story perspective, here are a couple of quotes from The Lonely Voice about a literary form that O’Connor much admired:

“Basically, the difference between the short story and the novel is not one of length.  It is a difference between pure and applied storytelling, and in case someone has still failed to get the point I am not trying to decry applied storytelling.  Pure storytelling is more artistic, that is, and in storytelling I am not sure how much art is preferable to nature.”

“Turgenev and Chekhov give us is not so much the brevity of the short story as compared with the expansiveness of the novel as the purity of an art form that is motivated by its own necessities rather than by our convenience…. The storyteller differs from the novelist in this: he must be much more of a writer, much more of an artist….”
The Trouble With Fire was well received by some reviewers in New Zealand, at least in the six I found and that are listed on Kidman’s website. (I am not familiar with the book reviewing scene in that country and so do not know if this is a good showing or not.) A search of English-language newspapers worldwide revealed no other reviews of the book—in Australia, American, England, Canada.  As far as I can tell, the book sold well in New Zealand, remaining on the bestseller list there for several weeks.
More than one reviewer notes the “gentleness and wisdom” of Kidman’s storytelling, one commenting, “When you read her work, there’s a sense of being in safe hands” and another saying, “In Kidman, readers invariably find a very safe pair of hands.”  I am not sure what it means that a reader feels in “safe hands” with a certain author, other than that it suggests an experienced author who takes no real chances and makes no great demands on the reader.  More than one reviewer notes how “readable” Kidman’s stories are and how “her clear style makes for easy reading.”

Kidman has written novels, short stories, essays, and television shows, winning several awards over the years. She won the 1988 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction for Book of Secrets and in 1998 was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature. She is 71 and has had a street named after her in a New Zealand town.  In a YouTube video, she talks about how in the 1960s she was a middle class housewife who wanted to be a writer.  She has a website on which she posts recipes from her books, such as potato fritters and fish curry.  (I made the potato fritters, and they weren’t bad.) The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature describes her as one of New Zealand’s most popularly successful contemporary serious novelists—without really defining what the phrase “serious novelist” means.  Most recently, she has published two volumes of her memoirs

Three of the six New Zealand reviewers who have praised The Trouble with Fire annotated their remarks as follows:

The reviewer in The New Zealand Herald says:  “I suspect fiction-lovers tend to prefer reading novels to short stories as there’s more to get your teeth into.  But these are meaty tales that feel very complete—there isn’t that let-down of being made to abandon characters just as you’re getting interested in their lives.”

The reviewer in the Otago Daily Times acknowledges: “I read short stories infrequently, preferring a novel where I can get involved with the characters and plot development.  But this book hooked from the first story.”

In a National Radio Review, Gina Rogers admits she is not a big short story reader,” but adds that with Kidman’s stories she felt “satisfied,” not “robbed,” the way she often does when reading short stories.  She particularly liked the historical story about one of New Zealand’s Prime Ministers because it supplied information with which she was not familiar, and she liked the three linked stories in the second section, calling them “very readable.”

Azure Rissetto, a graduate student working on her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Aukland makes much of the metaphoric significance of fire in the stories.  She says the passage—“That’s the trouble with fire, you never known which way it will turn”—suggests that the random, haphazard nature of fire “might stand for the nature of storytelling itself.”   (Pace, Miss. Rissetto, but although “haphazard” may indeed describe novels, it certainly does not characterize good short stories.)

All these remarks are clear evidence that what the reviewers like about Kidman’s fiction has nothing to do with the “excellence of the short story”—which the Frank O’Connor Award says it wishes to reward.  Admitting that they do not like short stories, the reviewers say they like Kidman’s stories anyway.  Why?  Well because they don’t seem like short stories; they seem more “safely” novelistic.

My experience this past week reading Dame Kidman’s The Trouble with Fire was a novelistic experience, aided and abetted by the fact that I read it on my Kindle Fire (no symbolic significance implied).  I ordered the book on Kindle because the hard cover version was listed at $24.99—pretty steep for a guy who must buy review copies out of pocket.  The Kindle version was $17.99—almost twice as much as a Kindle version of a book of fiction usually costs. 

However, since I had promised to comment on all the Frank O’Connor shortlisted books this year, I gulped and charged it to my credit card.  The book arrived immediately, of course, but since Kindle versions have no page numbers, I had no idea of the “heft” of the book.  I just began reading.  I would start a story and read and read and read and read—and it was just like reading a novel.  The stories were written as Frank O’Connor says novels are written, using “applied storytelling.”  That is, the prose is casual and wordy and redundant and ordinary—meant merely to steer characters through the plot.  I kept plodding through story after story, never quite sure when I was going to finish one.  Finally, I went back to Amazon.com and checked the number of pages in the book—gulp! 372 pages!  So that was why the cost was so high—sheer bulk.  (Although as a side note, I am not sure why the Kindle version should cost so much; since the reader is not paying for additional print and paper costs, length should not matter.)

There are eleven stories in the collection divided into three sections. The first section is a miscellany of five stories, mostly focusing on memories and experiences of mature women; the second section includes three linked stories about a family and the mystery of a missing woman; the final section is made up of two historical fictions—one involving a New Zealand Prime Minister from the 1920’s, Gordon Coates, and the other focusing on Lady Barker, a New Zealand writer of the nineteenth century.

I have no intention of writing detailed analyses of the meaning and significance of these stories—mainly because I don’t think they have any meaning or significance.  But, God help me, I did read them—every word.  They are just novelistic narratives, going on and on.  And because they go on and on in an “applied storytelling way,” the exposition, narration, and dialogue are all just ordinary language describing people and events and recording often tedious talk.  If you like novels, especially “readable” and “safe” novels, you will not mind all this “stuff,” but Frank O’Connor would not recognize any of these pieces as examples of his beloved short story.

Here are a few plot/character summaries and some sentences and phrases that struck me as just too novelistically “easy.”

“The Italian Boy” focuses on Hilary, a novelist; her friend Meryl; Nino, the Italian boy of the title; and siblings, Julius and Anthea.   It’s mostly a recollection of adolescence and initiation and friends and enemies, etc. with a revelation of a shocking incestuous relationship between a brother and sister.

“The History of It” centers on a couple, Geraldine and Duncan, and the death of a young man.  Think about the following two sentences for a few minutes and ask yourself how penetrating and meaningful they are:
“Their meetings were as necessary as eating and sleeping, as nourishing as red meat.” 
“Their messages were as clear as Post-it notes on a fridge door.”  .

“Preservation” is a typical “girlhood friends” story, in which Jan, the last one you would have expected to land up in prison, ends up in prison and gets her two adult friends to buy an expensive dress for her mother’s funeral and then take it back; later, someone buys the dress and gets poisoned from the formaldehyde. Shocking.  Ask yourself how clichéd the following two typical descriptions are:
“a tall rakish woman with tousled red curls”
“ample breasts”

In “Extremes,” a married woman named Rachel, who doesn’t want children, has to go to Australia for an abortion, since abortion is against the law in New Zealand at the time.  Much of the language is familiar romance/pulp stuff e.g.:
“Rachel had watched Mark with a fierce, urgent gaze full of longing.” 
“She wanted Mark’s length sliding inside her”

Much of the language is just careless and clichéd:
“Penelope had her work cut out for her.”
“The house where they all lived, Rachel and her parents and two sisters.” (Why not just, “The house where Rachel and her parents and two sisters lived”? It’s a sentence that begs to be revised.)

Some sentences are just ambiguous and awkward.  For example, in “Heaven Freezes”:
“She plays Monopoly and Scrabble with them, though they are not very secretly bored by these attempts to distract them from computer games.” (Are they not bored? Are they secretly bored?)
“They know the story of the rolling surf carrying her away is a big fat lie.” (What author calls something a big fat lie?)
“I think he’s tied up,’ she says, as if Phil is a prisoner somewhere.”  (It is as though realizing the phrase “He’s tied up” is a cliché, the author adds the “prisoner” simile to justify it or to rescue it with supposed cleverness.)

“Silks” is a story about a woman whose husband gets rotavirus, which comes from dirty food contaminated with excrement while they are visiting Hanoi.  What is it about? Well, the endless inconveniences and distresses she must face while her husband is cared for in hospital. 

As usual, sentences are often careless.  For example: “We crossed a river and a bridge that seemed to stretch into infinity; I sensed the water beneath us.”  (Which stretches to infinity—the river or the bridge?  Both?  How?)

Occasionally, there is a striking sentence, which excites the reader with expectation, for example this one from “Silks”:
 “The lights had gone out except for the tiny flickers of fires peppering the pavements, illuminating the shadows of late workers bending over their pots.”
 And the final sentence from “Silks” is not bad either: “I took his hand, our two skins crumpled together.  Old silks.”

But too often, we do not find what Frank O’Connor calls the “artistic writing” of the short story, just the “applied writing” of the novel.

One reviewer called Part Two “a bonus for novel lovers, as stories which at first appear to be unconnected are not.” But it is all novelistic Catherine Cookson stuff—good enough to while away a cold winter night, but not good enough to be nominated for “excellence in the short story.”  The three stories--“The Man from Tooley Street,” “Some Other Man,” and “Under Water”-- deal with the history of a family and the character Joy disappearing at a railway station at age 25.  Maybe the reviewer is right—that it is a bonus for novel lovers—but for short story lovers, it is “let the buyer beware.”

The two final stories are typical historical fictions: “Fragrance Rising” about Gordon Coates, who was New Zealand Prime Minister from 1925-28, and “The Trouble with Fire” about Lady Barker, a famous colonial writer, author of the 1870 memoir, Station Life in New Zealand (1870).

The most frequent descriptive word the reviewers use for these historical fictions is “fascinating,” because they provide information that Kidman gleaned from a biography about Coates and the memoir by Barker, which the reviewers are obviously not familiar with.  One may indeed go to historical novels for such stuff, but, as Frank O’Connor would be quick to say, one does not go to short stories for historical information.

I know the only judgments that count concerning The Trouble with Fire are those of New Zealand readers and the honorable judges of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.  And I hope my readers will not think I am engaging in a hatchet job on the much respected Dame Fiona Kidman. But in the name of Frank O’Connor in particular and the short story in general, I just do not understand why this book was shortlisted for a prize that promises to “reward an individual author’s commitment to this most exacting of forms.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist: 2012--Lucia Perillo's Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain

Lucia Perillo, Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain.  W. W. Norton.

I have always tried to be alert about what governs my reaction to a new story I read:  Do I like, or not like, a story for personal reasons, or do I like, or not like, a story for critical reasons?

For example, when I read the first paragraph of the first story—“Bad Boy Number Seventeen”— in Lucia Perillo’s collection, I reacted negatively to the narrator/central character, who is attracted to “bad boys,” but I liked the language she uses to describe those boys: “Coming, they walk with their shoulders back like they’ve got a raw egg tucked inside each armpit, and they let their legs lead them.  Going, you can count on the fact that their butts will cast no shadow on those lean, long legs.”

This was my experience with most of the stories.  I did not particularly like the central female characters, but I liked the language Perillo gives them.  The characters were self-indulgent, but the writing certainly was not.  This creates a particular dilemma for me when, as is often the case in these stories, the story is written in first person, and I am torn between the meaningless behavior of the character and the nicely turned phrases that come out of her mouth. 

When you see that the author of Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain is a poet, and a Pulitzer Prize nominated poet at that, and that she has won one of those so-called “genius” MacArthur Awards, you may have some expectations of lyric language as you settle in.  But these are not poetic stories, either for their lyric language or their tightly unified structured. The emphasis is on a certain kind of blue-collar woman with a voice that moves easily between educated eloquence and rough talking slang--a fairly familiar persona in much modern fiction--the female equivalent of the cliché ideal male—a truck driver who is also a poet.

The central character of the first story goes through several Bad Boys, beginning with Number One when she was a high school freshman, who had her doing his pre-algebra problems while he “worked on the science of breaking-and-entering,” and moving through Number Eight who tattooed a snake on her hand and arm that made job interviews problematic.  She decides not to tell us about numbers Nine through Sixteen, moving quickly on to Seventeen.

The narrator’s mother and older Down syndrome sister, Louisa, live in a trailer after her father left them.  The mother’s luck with new men is not much better than her daughter’s: “capital-L Losers—we’re talking bankruptcy and Thorazine.”

The narrator meets Number Seventeen in a bar, but he soon disappears and leaves her with a dog because his wife is allergic to it.  Louisa loves the dog, and the story ends with the narrator watching the two of them trot off down a field together. She thinks about warning her sister about this doggy Bad Boy, but says she will think she is trying to keep him for her own private thrill: “The thrill of being smashed into and crashing, when he knocks her down and they go rolling through the weeds”—an obvious reference to her own inexplicable attraction to Bad Boys.

Near the end of the collection, Perillo includes two more stories about this narrator, her mother, and sister. (I’m not sure why she did not link them together in the same place.)  In the second Louisa story, “St. Jude in Persia,” the narrator is just out of rehab.  The focus here is mostly on the mother, who is still enraged at her husband for leaving her with another woman.  The narrator, in her usual, tough/snappy tone, says, “My mother may be short and squat, a victim of too many shortbreads with her tea, but she’s still not a woman you want to go up against when she’s got a bee in her bonnet and a gun in her hands.”  The Mother has a road rage encounter with her ex and his girlfriend, goes after his horse with a rifle, and tackles the barn with a backhoe—all of which the narrator describes in her usual comic/clever way.

In “Late in the Realm,” the third Louisa story, and the final story in the collection, the narrator begins “doing the deed” with a man called Doctor Doodle.  Even more than in the other two stories, here, the narrator’s tough-talking voice and poetic sensibility mesh emphatically. Doctor Doodle likes to quote poetry, reciting passages from William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens’ “Idea of Order at Key West”—e.g.: “The lights of the fishing boats at anchor mastered the night and portioned out the sea.” The story and the collection ends with what the narrator calls a poem—a celebration of energy in a boat:  “Louisa lets out a scream of joy that rises above the engine noise, as the Doctor yells for me to give it everything I’ve got”—the narrator’s usual careless, full-speed ahead, attitude.  In all three stories, it is supposed to be ironic and sweet that the Down syndrome Louisa is the only character who seems blissfully happy with her life.

Most of the stories in this collection focus on women who are always hooking up with Bad Boys—if not the narrator, then a mother, a sister, a friend.  For example, although “Big Dot Day” is ostensibly about a boy named Arnie, his mother governs his experience by going from one man to another--referred to primarily as “this guy” or “the last guy.” Arnie knows the new guy’s name is Jay, but the old guy’s name was Ray, and he fears mixing them up, for they are “interchangeable:  same boys—long-armed, short, and barrel-chested—but with different heads.” The third person narrator of this story sounds very much like the poetic/trailer trash female voice of the first-person stories, e.g.: “The new guy snored like a car ignition trying to catch, holding out the possibility of something about to happen.”

The title, “Big Dot Day,” is evoked when Arnie picks up a tide table, which promisingly states on the front cover: “The bigger the dot the better the fishing.”  He looks through the pages and sees that today is supposed to be a “big-dot day.”  He hopes the new guy, who has talked a lot about fishing, will take him, but the mother and the new guy are flopping around in the bathtub “like a couple of seals”; so he goes out on the motel balcony and practices his casting with a piece of pie on the hook. 

When a gull swallows the pie, Arnie reels him in; he tries to hypnotize the gull with his mother’s earrings as she screams in the bathroom, finally grabbing the bird under his armpit and pulling out the hook: “Then came the best part, when Arnie took the bird out to the balcony and watched it fly off like a braggart, as if this were all part of a plan the bird had itself dreamed up.”  When the mother and the new guy come out of the bathroom and find out he has caught a bird, the mother has a grin on her face, a stunned look “as if she’d just been knocked down by a truck.”  She then provides the thematic conclusion of the story:  “See how the magic works? You come to the end of the earth and then you catch a bird.”  As she holds Arnie, she says, “It’s all part of the plan: movement, stasis.  Where else could this have happened?”  The thematic conclusion is deftly undercut when Arnie asks again if Jay will take him fishing and once again he puts the boy off.  The mother holds Arnie and says, “He’s right, Ray… A promise is a promise.” “It’s Jay,” said the new guy, lightning a cigarette.”

“Doctor Vicks” introduces a woman who is an addict and adrift. The title refers to Vicks’ cough syrup, which the woman, trying to give up alcohol, drinks by the six-pack.  Her husband has talked her into moving out into the woods because her son is getting into trouble in the city, but she suspects that the husband is concealing some secret.  The teenage boy continues to vandalize houses with a friend.  She watches him and his friend standing on a narrow trestle as the train thunders past them at close range. She buys an expensive vacuum cleaner from a travelling salesman because she sees a hole in his shoe is resigns herself to doing what she can to save him: "Forty-five dollars a month is not much, after all.  And cleaning has always held your interest.” The story ends when a vacuum cleaner saleswoman comes to the house to give a demonstration.  The saleswoman is allowed to give the thematic final word, noting she could not live out here alone: “Too much space with nothing here, and I’d always be feeling like it was up to me to fill it up.” Although I get a bit tired of the same lost, addict, female character, Perillo’s language is hard to resist.

“Report from the Trenches” begins with a fight between a man and a woman; when Jill, friend, comes in after the man leaves and asks what the fight was about this time, the central character replies, “You mean what’s the name this time?”—once again reminding us of the serial Bad Boy theme.  The friend Jill has the clever tough-talking voice this time: “My brain was never in the same time zone as the other parts of my body below my neck.”  She tells a story about robbing a mini mart with some bad boys, as the narrator hears her baby upstairs crying “in a language that I do not speak”; it bypasses her brain, she says, and goes straight to her glands “producing two wet spots on the front of my blouse.”

In one of her Bad Boy stories, Jill describes seeing a girl through a pool hall door wearing a slinky green dress and one of those filmy Amish hats; a man’s hand runs up her leg; the girl is smoking a cigarette looking like she has been standing there all her life, “waiting for someone like me to come along.”  When the narrator asks Jill how the girl fits in, she says, in the last line of the story, “I just think of her often is all.”  Perillo is quite deft at these concluding metaphoric images, often combining a woman being pulled toward dangerous adventures while being tethered to domestic life.

“A Ghost Story” establishes the central metaphor of the kind of man who attract these women: a man the central character, referred to as “the girl,” describes as a ghost, noting that while sometimes you can “banish the physical vessels in which these ghosts travel, the psychic border skirmishes will continue on forever.”  After “the girl” is picked up by a man in a convertible while working as a flagger on the highway, she goes to a motel and has sex with him.  The third person voice of the story identifies herself self reflexively: “On the first weekend they spent together—don’t worry, there are only two weekends in this story.  It’ll be over soon.”  She describes the man as “like the phantom that appears in those hitchhiker/truck driver stories” who has died a long time ago, but leaves a piece of evidence, like a baseball cap to prove the visitation.  The story ends years later, when the central character, who has become a lawyer, discovers a photo on an old roll of film of her and the man.  She says even though she is the one in the filmy shirt, he is the one who is insubstantial, “as if at any moment he might turn into smoke.  And when he does, I’ll make a ninety-degree turn and walk right through him.  And my solidness will churn whatever’s left of him to wisps.”  This is one of the few stories in which the central female character manages to kick the habit of hooking up with ghost bad boys.

“Cavalcade of the Old West” is the most emphatic story about the collection’s central theme of carelessly seizing the day.  Two young sisters, Stella and Ginny, go to a geek show at the fair called Cavalcade of the Old West.  Stella has a sexual encounter with the Salmon boy, an armless, legless black man of indeterminate years who wears a satin shirt that make his stumps look like fins.  Years later, Stella tells Ginny that when she is ninety years old and peeing in a bedpan, she will always remember her for her night spent with the Salmon boy at age fourteen. “When it comes to you, I’ll be fourteen forever.  And how much would other people give for that, unh?  To be fourteen forever.  If I could bottle that, I’d make a mint.”  Stella wonders why it is that someone you love may dry up and blow away, whereas ten minutes with the Salmon Boy is something that she will never forget.

In “Anyone Else But Me,” Ruth, fifty-six, is enrolled in the senior citizen’s exercise group.  Prairie Rose, her daughter, works for the Miracle Management Response Team, whose job is to oversee the image of the Virgin Mary in dark stains running down a concrete seawall.  She often moves back in with her mother and sleeps on a futon in a walk-in closet in Ruth’s apartment. When young, Ruth was a typical female loser; when she got pregnant with Prairie Rose, she headed west and when she reached the ocean, she tossed a coin and made a right-hand turn, ending up on Puget Sound.  At the end of the story, Prairie Rose is in the closet, using her laptop to try and find out who her father is. The final image has Ruth crowded in the closet with Prairie Rose looking at a gray blob of a man’s face on the computer: “They kneel on the floor, peering at the image.  And finally, when the face is all there, Prairie Rose turns to her mother and asks: ‘Well, what do you think, Ma? Is that him?’”

One reviewer says that Perillo “strikes a glorious balance between wryly intelligent prose and emotional force, recalling Alice Munro at her best.”   Although these are clever stories and for the most part well-written and well-wrought, I don’t think so.  Alice Munro at her best has a more penetrating sense of the multiform mysteries of what motivates us.

The reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle says: “Fans of Raymond Carver will enjoy Perillo’s mucky, Kmart realism. I don’t think so; Carver’s character’s have more range than Perillo’s; and I am not sure I know what the catch phrase “Kmart realism” really means.  The only Carver connection the reviewer calls to mind is that one Perillo story features a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Adam Plunkett in the New York Times is more perceptive: “With some exception, Happiness is full of straightforward sentences in straightforward narratives, as you might expect from someone who understands the mechanics of storytelling but hasn’t’ yet written much fiction.”  He also says some characters have a bizarre lack of empathy or ambition or self-awareness “that all hint at a very bright author unsure of how to dumb herself down.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Katherine Anne Porter and the Luminosity of the Short Story

There are some writers who, although they construct novels, are just best at honing short stories.  Katherine Anne Porter is one of those writers.  Unfortunately, the mode of criticism most popular in the past decade—cultural/social/ideological—suitable for analyzing novels, has, with the exception of some studies of Ship of Fools, pretty much ignored Porter’s fiction. 

Consequently, to seek the assistance of good analysis of her work, we must go back to that much maligned mode of criticism that peaked in graduate programs in the mid-sixties—Formalism, sometimes called the New Criticism.  I was fortunate to have received my undergraduate and graduate education in literature between 1960 and 1966 and thus had the benefit of being influenced by such critics as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and others.  Unfortunately this mode of criticism, which focused on explicating individual poems, stories, and novels, began to fade with the advent of so-called “theory.”

Eudora Welty, in her usual perceptive acuity reminds us why Porter is best at writing short stories, noting that Porter’s stories all take place in the interior of our lives.  “Her use of the physical world is enough to meet her needs and no more; she is not wasteful with anything.”  Welty also notes that, like her own tales, Porter’s stories are about the mystery of love: “Her ardent conviction that we need to give and receive in loving kindness all the human warmth we can make—here is where her stories come from”

Robert Penn Warren also centers his comments on Porter’s special talent for the short story form, noting that the characteristic of her fiction is a “rich surface detail scattered with apparently casual profuseness and the close structure which makes such detail meaningful; the great compression and economy which one discovers upon analysis; the precision of psychology and the observation, the texture of the style.”  Warren concludes that Porter’s fiction is “a literally metaphysical poetry…The luminosity is from within.”

Although Porter’s “Flowering Judas has been singled out for discussion over the years, most of that discussion recently has been on feminist and social issues. In my own opinion, “Flowering Judas” has a more universal (hateful word for the current cultural critics) significance suggested by Porter’s careful use of metaphoric language--the tension between flesh and spirit.  Braggioni sits “heaped” and sings in a “furry” mournful voice,” ‘snarling a tune.” He “scratches” the guitar familiarly as though it were a pet animal, taking the high notes in a prolonged painful squeal. “The gluttonous bulk of him has become a symbol” of Laura’s many disillusions.

Laura withholds herself from others, her round white collar is “nunlike,” and she has renounced vanities.  Braggioni bulges marvelously in his clothes, swells over his ammunition belt, swells with ominous ripeness.  But nobody touches Laura.  All praise her gray eyes and the soft round underlip which promises gayety yet is always grave. She draws her strength from one talismanic word, “no.” “Denying everything she may walk anywhere in safety, covering her great round breasts with thick dark cloth and who hides long invaluably beautiful legs under a heavy skirt.”
This tension between body and denial of body culminates with the death of Eugenio.

My two favorite Porter stories, which I included in my textbook Fiction’s Many Worlds, are two of her shortest ones:  “The Grave” and “Theft.”

In 1964, Sister M. Joselyn, began her essay on Katherine Anne Porter’s story “The Grave” as a lyrical short story this way:

“To those who enjoy the short story and are inclined to take it seriously as an art form, it is a constant source of surprise to find that although the genre has been with us for several centuries, there is still a marked dearth of systematic criticism concerning it.” 

Sister Joselyn argued that the “time is ripe for a serious, empirical study of the forms of the short story” and that we might begin by recognizing two basic recurrent kinds of stories which she called the ‘mimetic’ and the ‘lyric.’”  A few years later, using her secular name, Eileen Baldeshwiler, she published an article entitled “The Lyric Short Story:  The Sketch of a History,” in which she identified the two strains of short fiction as “epical” and “lyrical.”  I included this essay in my collection Short Story Theories, 1977.

I, of course, agreed with Sister Joselyn that it was time for some systematic criticism of the short story, by which both she and I meant that the short story had both a history and an aesthetic that readers would do well to know and understand.  Sister Joselyn’s description of the “lyrical” short story included the following characteristics: “(1) marked deviation from chronological sequence, (2) exploitation of purely verbal resources such as tone and imagery, (3) a concentration upon increased awareness rather than upon a completed action, and (4) a high degree of suggestiveness, emotional intensity, achieved with a minimum of means.”

“The Grave”

What makes this story so irresistible is its distinctive use of several modern short-story conventions.  First of all, as Sister Joselyn points out in her article listed below, the story
is closer to a lyric poem than it is to traditional narrative; consequently, it communicates more by metaphor and symbol than by character and event.  Secondly, it is a story about a significant
moment, in this case a moment of realization or passage from one state of being to another. 
Finally, it is a paradigm of story in that it is a memory fashioned into meaning.

The story focuses on Miranda's reaction to the gold ring she found in the grave, which makes her long to put aside her childhood for the traditionally feminine world of her thinnest and most becoming dress, and the opened body of the pregnant rabbit, which introduces her to the mysterious nature of birth. When Miranda sees the unborn rabbits, it is as if she had known this all along; she now understands some of the secret formless intuitions in her mind and body which have been taking form so slowly and gradually that she had not realized she was learning what she had to know.  Both perceptions suggest a traditional initiation of the young girl into womanhood.

What is not so clear is the relationship between this memory, which has lain buried for twenty years, and the present situation of the adult Miranda, for whom the marketplace's smell of mingled sweetness and corruption is the same as the smell of the cemetery so many years ago at home.  Miranda's image of birth arrested by death evoked by her memory of the pregnant rabbit is transformed into metaphor by the memory of the discovery of treasure in the graves; what was horrifyingly real is thus displaced by the poetic image of her brother turning the silver dove over and over in his hands.  And what was a shocking encounter with the nature of birth and death has been transmuted into meaning by the creative power of memory. 


The basic problem in this story is how to determine the relationship between the protagonist's encounters with various young men before the theft of her purse and her encounters with the janitress after the theft.  What has to be understood is how both series of confrontations motivate or justify the extremity of her final feeling that she is the thief who will end up leaving herself nothing.  As usual in post-Chekhovian stories, there is no explicit exposition to provide the answer.  The only background exposition is indicated obliquely when she mentions she has received a letter "making up her mind" for her and when she recalls spreading the letter out to dry so she could reread it.

The contents of the letter constitute an appropriate metaphor for modern short fiction, for it is largely made up of blanks, gaps, ellipsis.  However, as usual in letters, we "read between the lines" to conclude that it signifies a broken relationship.  This is further suggested by her telling the janitress that the purse was a present from someone (someone the janitress takes to be a man; she earlier says that it is a birthday present) and that the loss of it makes her feel she has been robbed of enormous number of valuable things, all of which suggest this is not the only loss she has experienced recently.

Most of the story focuses on seemingly irrelevant encounters she recalls in the "immediate past": the polite ceremonies of Camilo trying to put on a good front and then hiding his hat under his coat to save it from the rain; her conversation with Roger in the taxi about his trying to make up his mind to do something definite about his relationship with a young woman; the dialogue with Bill who complains that his wife is ruining him with her extravagance and who cannot pay the protagonist what he owes her.  In the midst of these scenes, there are brief scenes "in passing," as it were:  the three boys who talk about getting married and the two girls, one of whom complains about the conflicts of her relationship.  What unites all these seemingly unrelated scenes is that all focus on broken, flawed, or faulty relationships in which people are posturing or putting on a false front.

Given this background, it seems inevitable that when the protagonist confronts the janitress to get her purse back, she will realize the justness of the janitress's rebuke that she has already let her chances pass her by.  The story thus very economically and indirectly conveys a life lived carelessly; as the janitress says, "you leave things around and don't seem to notice much."  As the protagonist realizes, life is a process of having things taken from you, but the worse kind of loss is that which is a result of your own neglect and failure to attend to things, for it is that kind of loss that ends by leaving one with nothing.

Messy Mountains vs. Luminous Diamonds

As much as I admire the criticism of William H. Gass, I am disappointed that he ended his essay on Porter in his newest book with a common slight to the short story as a form:

“Although O’Connor, Welty, and Porter obliged us by writing novels, it is for short stories they are generally remembered, in which more polish for small surfaces is routinely expected, whereas writers like Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Stein—well, they are moving mountains, and it doesn’t matter if they leave a small mess here and there like great chefs in the kitchen. Does it?”

Well, no.  Small messes do not matter when you are moving mountains.  But how many novels actually undertake and succeed in such monumental massive goals?  And what makes moving a mountain more important than crafting a diamond?  The first just takes brute force and big equipment; the second requires precision and skill. I’ll take Porter’s diamonds over Tolstoy’s mountain any day.